Hard Truths about Concrete

Zachary Korb, Abbott Hospital Parking Garage Ramp, Minneapolis, Minnesota, 1 October 2006

In 1992 the Max Protech Gallery in New York had an exhibit of the concrete furniture work of Scott Burton. Chaise Longings, the catalogue of the exhibit, included an essay, “Concrete and Burton”, by Peter Schjeldahl (at the time an art critic for The Village Voice). It came to my attention when the following section was excerpted in Harper’s Magazine (published under the title, “Hard Truths about Concrete,” vol. 287, no. 1721, October 1993, pp. 28-30).

It is really more of a prose poem, or a paean to concrete than an essay of analysis or criticism. As an enthusiast of urbanism and the human built environment, I too have a considerable eros for concrete, and often find myself reciting lines from this passage to myself as I gaze out the train window rumbling about the city (usually the eastern branch of the red line).

Wall-Ties & Forms, Inc., High Rise Concrete Construction In Venezuela, 26 August 2008

1. Concrete

Concrete is the most careless, slovenly stuff — until it is committed, when it becomes fanatically adamant. Liquid rock, concrete is born under a sign of paradox and does not care. Pour concrete out on the ground and it will start to puddle and spread, in rapture to gravity, but then will think better of it: enough spreading! It heaps up on itself in lazy glops, sensual as a frog.

Concrete takes no notice of what is done with it, flowing into any container, and the containers one makes for it, the molds and forms, must be fashioned with laborious care, strong and tight, because concrete is heavy and entirely feckless. Promiscuous, doing what anyone wants if the person is strong enough to hold it, concrete is the slut, the gigolo, of materials. Every other material — wood, clay, metal, even plastic — has self-respect, a limit to what it will suffer to have done with it, and at the same time is responsive within that limit, supple in the ways it consents to be used. Concrete is stupid and will do anything for anyone, without protest or pleasure, so long as the person indulges its mania to lie down.

Let concrete set, however, and sense the difference. Concrete hardens in the shape of whatever container received its flow, its momentary sensual abandon in thoughtless submission to half-loved gravity. Once it has set, what a difference! Concrete becomes adamant, fanatical, a Puritan, a rock, Robespierre. It declares like no other material the inevitability, the immortality — the divinity! — of the shape it comprises, be the shape a glopped heap on the ground or a concert hall, ridiculous or sublime.

Wall-Ties & Forms, Inc., Aluminum Concrete Forms in Hong Kong, 31 May 2007

Concrete that has set will have no thought, no monomaniacal obsession until the end of time, except this shape. No other material — not brick, not wood, not the very stone blocks of the Great Pyramids forgets itself to such an extent. Bricks planks of wood, and stone blocks whisper from their built configurations of their willingness to be disassembled and to become something else. Whorish but ironic plastic holds back from a lasting passion for the form it takes, murmuring of its readiness if given heat, just some lovely heat, to melt into other forms. Likewise metal and glass. Not concrete once concrete has set.

Set concrete insists, insists, insists. It insists on the rightness, permanence, godliness of the form into which it flowed so carelessly. You must smash set concrete to bits if you would shut up the voice of its insistence, and even then the smashed bits will lie around insistently piping. I was in Berlin early in 1990 and remember a thousand hammers banging away at the Wall, banging out “die, die, die!” The concrete of the awful thing was shrieking back “wall, wall, wall!” It took a long time for the hammers to win the argument, and even then the shattered corpse would not give in. I brought a handful of fragments home, and the ones that retained any flat surface still shrill “wall” in tiny voices, totalitarian for eternity.

There is something inappropriate, not quite right, about the notion of “working” concrete, finely finishing it, making its forms true, smooth, and pristine. It seems insulting to concrete’s gross strength and simplemindedness, mocking concrete as one might a rough farmworker by forcing fancy evening dress on him. Unlike the farmworker, however, concrete is unmockable because it is impervious. Go ahead and make fun of concrete. You might as well. Concrete will never notice.

Concrete has no feelings to hurt. It does have feelings, as we know, but they are adamantine, fanatic, and untouchable by anything. Concrete is solipsistic. By contrast, clay is touchy, wood is as woundable as the flesh it is, and brick has a yeoman worker’s pride, stolid and prickly. All have good reason to fear misuse and to exude sadness when misused. But kick concrete as much as you like, all you will hurt is your toe.

Concrete is among the world’s best exercise devices for unrequited loving. You may love and serve it until your heart is worn out and be assured of no responsiveness, not a quiver in return. No loathing, even. Nothing! Concrete is like Don Quixote’s Dulcinea, only colder. Coarse and stupid beyond compare, it combines these qualities with the froideur of a goddess, of Pallas Athena! It is a dominatrix, blind, deaf, and dumb, dumb beyond anything. You have to be a masochist to love concrete, enjoying the strength that your own capacity to love displays when the loved one is a pitiless idiot.

I too have a piece of the Berlin Wall, brought back for me by a friend who was visiting at the time. One side was part of the flat exterior of the wall. On the other side, two inches into the wall from the face, is an impression left by the concrete’s envelopment of a shaft of rebar.

Photographs “Aluminum Concrete Forms in Hong Kong” and “High Rise Concrete Construction In Venezuela” courtesy of Wall-Ties & Forms, Inc.; “Abbott Hospital Parking Garage Ramp, Minneapolis, MN” courtesy of Zachary Korb; used under the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

Okay, Okay, I’ll Say Something Nice About D.C., Pt. I

The Washington Monument peeking out from behind the Export-Import Bank and Dana buildings, L Street NW, looking south on 15th Street, Washington, D.C., 21 August 2009

Washington, D.C. is a miserable town and I am known to go on and on over the how and why (If D.C. is so miserable, why have you persisted in living here for six years? I plead complacency). But let me set that aside and say something nice about D.C. for once.

Something that I love about Washington, D.C. is how occasionally, when I don’t expect it, if maybe I get a little turned around in a neighborhood that I know less than others, or where I don’t have its relations to the adjacent areas down quite right — and I’m not saying that it happens all that often — but occasionally, all of a sudden the Washington Monument will pop into view where it’s totally unexpected. I don’t mean something like the view down 16th Street toward the White House, with the Washington Monument slightly off center, monumental kludge, throwing off the meridians of the district. That’s too obvious. I’m not saying that it happens all the time and that you can see the thing everyplace you go in town. If fact, it’s strange for all the height limitation and surrounding hills and all, for how much of the territory of D.C. the Washington Monument is not a presence at all.

I’m thinking of the obscure, peek-a-boo moments. The picture above is one of my favorite examples. This is the view from L Street NW, south on 15th, between the Export-Import Bank building (large blank facade on the left) and the Dana building (barely showing to the right). It’s such a narrow gap through which the Washington Monument appears that walking east, you come out from behind the corner of the building, cross the south-bound monumental sidewalk, step out into the street and have cleared the parallel-parked cars and taken your first step into the first lane of traffic before it pops into view. By the time you have traversed that first automobile lane, it’s already disappeared again behind the Dana building.

I’ve never been much of a fan of any particular architecture, but the play of building on building that comes from motion through a cityscape, the conciliance of many architectures that comprises a city is wondrous to me. Amidst praise, if I may briefly tack back in the direction of disparaging Washington, D.C., this is another place where the city comes up short. That said, the Washington Monument is a fun little game element of the cityscape in D.C.

The Architecture of Nightmares

Circa 1999, Lebbeus Woods, detail of Terrain 1-2

In “Imagination Unmoored” (8 August 2008) I suggested that in addition to our dreams we might end up living in our nightmares. It struck me as a strange thought when I wrote it, though I didn’t even have to think any particular scenario — the eccentric, the accidental, the illicit — all the way through for its plausibility to be apparent. Our culture already abounds in it. It is in this regard that the works of H. P. Lovecraft and Philip K. Dick have been inducted into the Library of America and that players sign up for Hord in World of Warcraft. Alternative iconography seeks stark contrasts with the mundane, with Goth tending toward horror and punk the post-apocalyptic. Pornography has always tarried with the Sadistic and the surreal.

Any art of the found will inevitably end up scavenging our calamities as well as our aspirations. Enter Lebbeus Woods whose architectural design work will be included in Dreamland: Architectural Experiments since the 1970s, an exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art (Ouroussoff, Nichlai, “An Architect Unshackled by Limits of the Real World,” 24 August 2008):

In the early 1990s he published a stunning series of renderings that explored the intersection of architecture and violence. The first of these, the Berlin Free-Zone project, designed soon after the fall of the Berlin Wall, was conceived as an illustration of how periods of social upheaval are also opportunities for creative freedom.

Aggressive machinelike structures — their steel exteriors resembling military debris — are implanted in the abandoned ruins of buildings that flank the wall’s former death zone. Cramped and oddly shaped, the interiors were designed to be difficult to inhabit — a strategy for screening out the typical bourgeois. (“You can’t bring your old habits here,” he warned. “If you want to participate, you will have to reinvent yourself.”)

This vision reached its extreme in a series of renderings he created in 1993 in response to the war in Bosnia. Inspired by sci-fi comics and full of writhing cables, crumbling buildings and flying shards of steel, these drawings seem to mock the old Modernist faith in a utopian future. Their dark, moody atmosphere suggests a world in a constant struggle for survival.

In 1999 he began working on a series of designs whose fragmented planes were intended to reflect the seismic shifts that occur during earthquakes. (“The idea is that it’s not nature that creates catastrophes,” he said. “It’s man. The renderings were intended to reflect a new way of thinking about normal geological occurrences.”)

“I’m not interested in living in a fantasy world,” Mr. Woods told me. “All my work is still meant to evoke real architectural spaces. But what interests me is what the world would be like if we were free of conventional limits. Maybe I can show what could happen if we lived by a different set of rules.”

The article actually laments that the young generation in architecture has been made facile by overuse of computers. Au contraire! That is exactly how we are to experience the architecture of the impractical, built under fanciful physics.

Anti-Humanist Architecture

I like Charles Mudede, I think he’s a pretty unique guy, but comments like this (“La Defense,” SLOG, The Stranger, 15 July 2008) make my fantasies of an architecture holocaust all the more vivid:

We see that the best buildings have in their design no humans in mind. All the better if the work is alien, monstrous, indifferent–anything more other than what we are already. A work that strives for the inhuman strives to be closer to the truth, which consistently turns out to be inhuman.

That’s all fine and good, but for the rest of us, we thought we were going shopping, commuting, trying to renew some government mandated piece of documentation, when in addition to all the rest of the litany of the day’s petty insults, we have to have an encounter with the monstrous truth as well. One may have thought that alien and indifferent were good for avant guard philosophy books, but apparently they’re a good arrangement for the DMV flagship office too. Thank you, architecture.